Posts Tagged Jewish History

Sefiras HaOmer — The path of a good heart

[Rabban Yochanon ben Zakkai] said to [his students]: Go and see which is the good path to which a person should cleave. Rabbi Eliezer said: A good eye. Rabbi Yehoshua said: A good friend. Rabbi Yossi said: A good neighbor. Rabbi Shimon said: To foresee consequences. Rabbi Elazar said: A good heart. [Rabban Yochanon] said to them, I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach over your words, for included in his words are all of yours.

Pirkei Avos, 2:13

 

imagesThe old cliché remains as timeless as ever: Give a man a fish and you give him food for a day; teach him to fish and you give him food for a lifetime.

The principle applies especially well to education: teach a student information and you add to his reservoir of knowledge; teach him how to learn and you enable him to educate himself for the rest of his life.

For this reason, Rabban Yochanon does not merely teach his students which is “the good path” that a person should follow. Instead, he sends them out to “see” for themselves, to discover on their own the answer to this all-important question.

But where are they supposed to look? And what do their answers mean? A good eye? A good heart? How do these simplistic sound bites define the “good path”? And why does Rabban Yochanon find Rabbi Elazar’s answer superior to those of his fellow students?

The Zohar tells us that before the Almighty created the world, He looked into the Torah as His blueprint for Creation.[2] The best way to understand our place in the world, therefore, is for us to look into the Torah as well.
This was how the students of Rabban Yochanon interpreted their rebbe’s instruction to “go and see.” They began at the beginning, carefully rereading the narrative of Bereishis, looking for any clue through which the Torah might direct us along the “good path.”

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God hovered over the surface of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning — one day (Bereishis 1:1-5).

Independently, each of the students followed the narrative of Creation and each, mindful of Rabban Yochanon’s instruction to find the good path, stopped at the same place: And God saw the light, that it was good. Each student recognized that the Torah’s first mention of the word “good” offered the most likely source for divining the good path they had been commanded to seek.

At this point they all arrived in agreement. From here forward their interpretations diverged.

Rabbi Eliezer said: A good eye

imagesAn understanding of the students’ answers, however, requires a closer examination into the Creation narrative. The light of Creation cannot refer simply to the light by which we see, for the simple reason that the Almighty did not create the sun and the stars until the fourth day, whereas He created the light on day one. If so, what was this light of Creation?

The kabbalistic principle of tzimtzum (literally, contraction) instructs us that, since Hashem is everywhere, He could not begin to create the universe until He had first created a place where He was not, a spiritual vacuum that would serve as the blank canvas on which to produce the greatest creative masterpieces imaginable — the universe, the world, and Man.[3] Only after preparing this spiritual vacuum (described by the Torah as void and darkness), could the spirit of God begin the act of Creation as it hovered over the primordial emptiness (the face of the deep), reintroducing the divine energy of the Eternal into the spiritual void — an act that can only be described in human language through the expression, Let there be light!

Through this act of Divine illumination, the Almighty translated His creative blueprint into physical and spiritual reality. The Torah, previously an unformed ideal in the infinite mind of God, manifested as a world created for the fulfillment of spiritual purpose. It is for this reason that the Aramaic name for Torah is oraissa — source of light — for it shows us the path and guides us as we seek to find our way through the darkness of the physical world toward spiritual enlightenment.

Thus Rabbi Eliezer declares that to walk the “good path” requires a “good eye,” the ability to perceive the Divine light of Hashem and follow it through our world of spiritual darkness. The spiritually myopic or, even worse, the spiritually blind, will stumble and stray from the path. Only one who cultivates the spiritual sensitivity to recognize and appreciate the Divine illumination of the Torah will be able to cling to the good path.

Rabbi Yehoshua said: A good friend

According to Jewish law, each 24-hour day actually begins as the evening sun falls below the horizon. Just as the Jewish Sabbath starts Friday evening, so too does every day of the week begin as night falls rather than with dawn the following morning. The biblical source for this is the repeated verse, And there was evening and there was morning.

Why is this so?

Human nature dictates that we truly appreciate only those things we are forced to do without. Just as the light of Creation is essential to human beings, equally essential is our appreciation of that light. With this in mind (together with the mystical reasons already discussed), the Almighty created first the darkness before the light, thereby enabling mankind to fully appreciate the light that would illuminate his world.

The light, therefore, became a good friend to the darkness that preceded it, while the darkness provided the contrast and context in which to value and cherish the light. According to Rabbi Yehoshua, adherence to the good path requires not only spiritual perception but the spiritual framework that gives perception its true meaning — not only a good eye but a good friend as well.

Rabbi Yossi said: A good neighbor

imagesThe kabbalists introduce us to the mystifying idea that, in the earliest moments of Creation, light and darkness were not divided as they are now, but were somehow intertwined in harmonious coexistence.[4]
Having already defined the light of Creation not as photons striking the optic nerve but as spiritual illumination of the Divine will, we can take the next step of interpreting light as symbolic of good and darkness as symbolic of evil. Since everything the Almighty does is ultimately for the good, light and darkness — i.e., good and (the perception of) evil — were at first inextricably woven together. But since the ultimate purpose of Creation would require that Man recognize and choose the good path, Hashem needed to enable Man to discern the good that should define his mission and guide his actions.

As the next step in Creation, therefore, God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night.

According to Rabbi Yossi, it is sufficient neither to have merely a good eye to see the light nor a good friend to appreciate it. What is even more critical is a good neighbor, the ability to draw and recognize boundaries between the light and the darkness, between good and evil. As Rabbi Yossi understood it, this is the key to walking the good path.

Rabbi Shimon said: To foresee consequences

The sages explain that the creation of light, although necessary for the existence of Man, presented a profound danger to survival of Man as well.

Just as nuclear technology can produce the energy to sustain all civilization, so too can it produce the destructive power to annihilate all civilization. Even greater than nuclear energy is the power of the Almighty’s Divine light. In the hands of the righteous, Hashem’s spiritual light can elevate humanity to the level of Godliness. In the hands of the unscrupulous it can be perverted to manipulate and exploit the unlimited blessing Hashem has provided for our benefit.

Hashem required, therefore, a plan through which He could limit the access of the wicked to His Divine light. Originally, He intended to allow His light to permeate the entire world, that every tree and stone, every field and mountain would testify to the divinity of Creation and guide Mankind along the good path. To protect it from misuse, however, He withdrew His light from every corner of the world and devised its concealment in a place where the wicked would not go. [5]

Hashem hid His light in the Torah.

imagesUnlike other intellectual pursuits, the study of Torah is no mere academic discipline. To truly acquire Torah wisdom, the student of Torah must commit himself to the internalization of Torah values and must allow the Torah to transform his character. Although Jewish history does provide examples of charlatans who learned enough to exploit their Torah knowledge, these are exceptions to the rule. For the most part, by the time a scholar reaches the level where he has acquired Torah wisdom, the Torah has shaped him into one of the righteous to whom the divine light of Torah can be safely entrusted.

For this reason, Rabbi Shimon declares that the essential quality to walk the good path is to foresee consequences, to discern and appreciate the divine light not only as it appears at any given moment, but to anticipate what will become of it as one walks the good path in pursuit of spiritual goals.

Rabbi Elazar said: A good heart

It is often said in the name of Rabbi Yisroel Salanter that there is no greater distance than from the head to the heart. Intellectual knowledge is indispensable, but true wisdom comes when we internalize the knowledge of our minds so that it penetrates our hearts, when we allow what we know to become part of who we are.

The first four students of Rabban Yochanon all identified the correct source to answer their teacher’s question, and they all accurately interpreted its relevance. Their argument was about emphasis: which is the most critical factor in adhering to the good path? Perception, context, differentiation, or forsight?

But they erred by failing to recognize that each of the steps they identified is an inseparable part of a process that remains incomplete without the full integration of every component. No one factor outweighs any of the others, since the process itself is an indivisible whole.

Rabbi Elazar ben Arach expressed this understanding as a good heart: only when one has acquired a unified perspective of every facet of the Divine light is he equipped to adhere to the good path; only when he has completed the whole process will he have fully internalized the values of Torah; and only then will he have refined his character to the point where his Torah wisdom will faithfully serve him, and where he will faithfully serve it.

It is the absolute commitment to acquiring a good heart that enables one to walk the good path. This is why Rabban Yochanon declares: I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach over your words, for included in his words are all of yours.

A final insight into Rabbi Elazar’s words comes by calculating the gematria of the word heart, leiv, the numerical value of which equals 32. In the narrative of Creation, we find that from the Torah’s opening word – Bereishis – until the first appearance of the word good we count 32 words, the equivalent of leiv, or heart.  Consequently, the phrase “good heart” – leiv tov – alludes to the process that begins at the beginning of the Torah and ends with the heart fully integrating the values of Hashem’s ultimate good.

Not merely the story of Creation but the very structure of the Divine word provides a remarkable illumination of Rabbi Elazar’s lesson. Only by beginning at the Beginning and working steadfastly through to the end can one acquire a good heart and successfully negotiate the good path. Like any physical journey, the journey to spiritual well-being begins with a single step and ends only after the traveler has placed one foot in front of the other until he arrives at his destination.

The days of transformation

Between Pesach and Shavuos we count 49 days, from the korban omer (the offering of the first barley harvest) to the sh’tei halechem (the offering of the first wheat harvest).  The sages describe barley as animal food; only bread from wheat flour is truly fit for human consumption.

The 49 days of Sefiras HaOmer, therefore, represent our transition from creatures little better than animals to fully human creations more exalted than the angels.  The freedom of Passover, ironically, does not even begin the count.  Freedom is mere potential.  It is what we do with our freedom that defines who and what we are.

imagesAnd so it is on the day after Pesach that we begin to count, describing a process of spiritual and moral development through which we strive to re-experience the spiritual maturation of the Jewish people from yetzias Mitzrayim to their acceptance of the Torah, the Divine gift that provides us with purpose and direction so that we might reach the limits of our potential.  Each day and each week corresponds to a unique combination of qualities:  kindness, discipline, mercy, consistency, humility, moderation and, ultimately, the integration and harmonization of all these into the most elusive quality — character.

Within Rabbi Elazar’s formula of a good heart we find yet another profound allusion.  Just as the numerical value of the word leiv, heart, equals 32, so does the numerical value of tov, good, equal 17.  Together they equal 49, the number of days we count as we prepare to re-accept the Torah.

Accordingly, we discover that the first 32 days represent a transformation of the heart, where the final 17 days represent the application of our newly elevated moral character into the practice of true good, or tov.  The transition point is day 33, the day we call Lag B’Omer, on which we commemorate the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

Days of joy and tragedy

Having attained the highest strata of Torah scholarship, Rabbi Akiva transmitted his incomparable wisdom on to 24,000 students, only to see a plague take the lives of virtually every last one.  As great as they were, Rabbi Akiva’s students failed to rise to the level demanded by their tutelage under the greatest sage since Moshe Rabbeinu, the teacher whose most famous lesson was, “Love your fellow as yourself:  this is the great principle of the Torah.”

Despite their exceptional scholarship, Rabbi Akiva’s students fell short in the respect they showed to one another.  To achieve anything less than perfection in that critical lesson, to miss the mark in the development of character (which is the foundation of Torah observance), to overlook the opportunity offered by the days between Pesach and Shavuos to perfect the qualities that govern one’s interpersonal relationships — all this proved fatal to a whole generation of extraordinary scholars.  The season that should have remained a time of joy instead became a season of mourning and self-reflection.

But all was not lost.  Among the five surviving students of Rabbi Akiva was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose unique ability to bring the mystical secrets of the Torah to light yielded a new era of spiritual illumination for the Jewish people.  Amidst the deepening darkness, the light of Torah would burn all the more brightly; and after the loss of so much Torah, the potential to rebuild the spiritual supports of the Jewish nation can be recovered through our understanding of why tragedy befell us, and how each of us carries in his heart a flame to light the world.

And so we commemorate the life and teachings of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai by suspending the days of mourning, by lighting bonfires to symbolize the light of Torah dispelling the darkness of exile, and by rejoicing in the mercy of the Almighty who transforms every disaster into the potential for renewal.  Through our Torah study and our sincere efforts to acquire the quality and character that defines a true Torah Jew, each and every one of us can hasten the arrival of the End of Days, when the darkness of confusion and despair will be permanently dispelled by the light of the Ultimate Redemption.


[1] Adapted from the Chassidic classic, B’nei Yissosschar; expanded from an article originally published by Aish.com
[2] Zohar Terumah 161b                                                                   
[3] Zohar 1:15a; Zohar Chadash, Va’eschanan, 57a
[4] Rashi, Bereishis 1:4, citing Bereishis Rabbah and Pesachim 2a
[5] Rashi, ibid., citing Bereishis Rabbah and Chagigah 12a

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The Midpoint of the World

What would you ask of a time traveler from a hundred years ago? And if you traveled a hundred years into the future, what would you want to tell the people you found there? Perhaps it would sound something like this:

What did you do to handle the overpopulations we predicted? How did you protect the seashores? What did you do to keep the ozone layer intact, the energy supplies, the trees? Have you eliminated ignorance, brutality, greed?

There might be no better way to discover unexamined truths about ourselves then by composing a letter to our grandchildren’s grandchildren. This was certainly on the mind of award-winning essayist Roger Rosenblatt a quarter century ago when he penned his deeply thoughtful Letter to 2086.

Read the whole article here.

Hat tip:  David Rich

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New Subscription Link

Please check out the new subscription link at the top of the right hand sidebar.  New articles are posted, on average, every week or two, so you won’t get flooded with more emails.

My articles on Jewish World Review, Aish.com, and other outlets examine current events and contemporary issues through the lens of classical Judasim, as well as Torah philosophy and ethics.

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It’s Midnight — Have your Neighbors Ascended to Heaven?

There’s something we love about a prophecy unfulfilled. But let’s be honest: even if we mocked those who eagerly awaited rapture this past Saturday, were we not the least bit discomfited by a little voice whispering from some distant corner of our minds, “But what if this time they’re right?

When prophecies don’t come true.

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Live From New York

I am pleased to announce that I will be a featured speaker at the Yeshiva University book sale on the topic:

Why Jews are Liberals
Jewish history and the origins of political ideology

7:30 PM
Wednesday 23 February
2495 Amsterdam Ave
Manhattan (Washington Heights), NY

A book signing will follow for my overview of Jewish history and philosophy, Dawn to Destiny.

For directions and location information, click here.

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Review of my Book

Many thanks to my former student and Block Yeshiva graduate Shira Peskin for her review of my Jewish history book in this week’s St. Louis Jewish Light.

Please pass it on.  Thanks!

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The Price of Disunity

Understanding the natural and spiritual causes of the destruction of the Second Temple.  Excerpted from my book, Dawn to Destiny.

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The Hidden Mysteries of Jewish History

With praise for and gratitude to the Master of the World, I am pleased to announce the publication of my first book:

Dawn to Destiny: Exploring Jewish History and its Hidden Wisdom

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

A comprehensive overview of Jewish History from Creation through the redaction of the Talmud, illuminating the intricacies and complexities of Torah tradition and philosophy according to the sages and classical commentaries, spanning the length and breadth of Jewish experience to resolve many of history’s most perplexing episodes, offering profound insights and showing their relevance to life in the modern world.

How did the sin of Adam transform mankind and the world? How were the prophecies of Noah fulfilled through the rise of the Greek Empire? How did the builders of the Tower of Babel believe they could wage war against G-d? Why did the Torah have to be given in both written and oral form? What was King David’s transgression regarding his involvement with BasSheva? Why did some Jews oppose the construction of the Second Temple? How can we trust the transmission of Torah if our scholars engaged in such fierce disagreements? These and many other questions are answered in this unique volume.

An invaluable resource for scholars and laymen.  A priceless tool for education and outreach. With approbations from HaRav Dovid Cohen and HaRav Zev Leff.

25% OF MY FIRST YEAR’S PROCEEDS WILL GO TO BLOCK YESHIVA HIGH SCHOOL.

For excerpt and ordering information, click here.

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More and more, archeology supports authenticity of Torah

From Arutz-7

King David Era Pottery Shard Supports Biblical Narrative
by Avi Yellin

A breakthrough in the research of the Hebrew Scriptures has shed new light on the period in which the Bible books of the Prophets were written. Professor Gershon Galil of the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Haifa has deciphered an inscription dating from the 10th century BCE (the period of King David’s reign) and has proven the inscription to be ancient Hebrew, thus making it the earliest known example of Hebrew writing.

The significance of this breakthrough relates to the fact that at least some of the Biblical scriptures are now proven to have been composed hundreds of years before the dates presented today in research and that the Kingdom of Israel already existed at that time.

The inscription itself, which was written in ink on a 15×16.5cm trapezoid pottery shard, was discovered a year and a half ago at excavations that were carried out by Professor Yosef Garfinkel near the Elah valley, south of Jerusalem, and west of Hevron.

The researchers dated the inscription back to the 10th century BCE, which was the period of King David’s reign, but the question of the language used in this inscription remained unanswered, making it impossible to prove whether it was in fact Hebrew or another Semitic language.

Professor Galil’s deciphering of the ancient writing testifies to it being authentic Hebrew based on its use of verbs particular to the Hebrew language and content specific to Hebrew culture not adopted by other regional cultures at the time.

“This text is a social statement, relating to slaves, widows and orphans. It uses verbs that were characteristic of Hebrew, such as “asah” (did) and “avad” (worked), which were rarely used in other regional languages. Particular words that appear in the text, such as “almana” (widow) are specific to Hebrew and are written differently in other local languages. The content itself was also unfamiliar to all the cultures in the region besides the Hebrew society: The present inscription provides social elements similar to those found in the Biblical prophecies and very different from prophecies written by other cultures postulating glorification of the gods and taking care of their physical needs”

Galil added that once this deciphering is received at research centers, the inscription will become the earliest Hebrew inscription to be found, testifying to Hebrew writing abilities as early as the 10th century BCE. This stands opposed to the dating of the composition of the Bible in much current academic research, which does not recognize the possibility that the Bible or parts of it could have been written during this ancient period.

Galil also noted that the inscription was discovered in a provincial Judean town, explaining that if there were scribes in the periphery, it can be assumed that those inhabiting the central region and Jerusalem were even more proficient writers. “It can now be maintained that it was highly reasonable that during the 10th century BCE, during the reign of King David, there were scribes in Israel who were able to write literary texts and complex historiographies such as the books of Judges and Samuel.” He added that the complexity of the text, along with the impressive fortifications revealed at the site, refute theories that attempt to deny the existence of the Kingdom of Israel at that time.

The contents of the text express social sensitivity to the fragile position of weaker members of society and the inscription testifies to the presence of strangers within the Israeli society as far back as this ancient period, calling on native Hebrews to provide support for these strangers. It advocates care for widows and orphans and encourages the king – who at that time had the responsibility of curbing social inequality – to be involved in improving Israeli society. This inscription is similar in its content to Biblical scriptures (Isaiah 1:17, Psalms 72:3, Exodus 23:3, and others), but according to Galil it is not copied from any Biblical text.

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Rav Hirsch Remembered

This week we observe the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch who, in my humble opinion, articulates the outlooks and insights that offer the most hopeful solutions to the problems facing the modern Torah community.

May we find inspiration and guidance from his teachings.

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